Carrot VS Stick Management Approaches

Should you incentivize people with positive encouragement or negative consequences?

A.T. Gimbel
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July 20, 2021

Force vs reward, what should you choose?

I was speaking with an entrepreneur the other day and we were talking about leadership styles in certain situations: should they use the carrot or the stick approach? We have all likely heard of the management philosophies of the carrot and the stick. Do you incentivize people with positive encouragement or negative consequences? Here are a few things we discussed when determining the right approach.

Your authentic style

We all have natural temperaments and styles. Some leaders listen and speak softly but powerfully. Others talk right away and always have an opinion; some like to build consensus and others are more authoritarian. While it is important to be able to vary your style with the situation, you likely have a natural tendency. Be careful consistently going against your tendency as that can lose authenticity and effect. Rather, be aware of your style and have a co-founder/other leader support you when the opposite style to your natural tendency is needed.

Your audience

We all have different motivations and personalities. Some people respond well to pressure, others need more positive vibes and support. Be aware of your audience; are you trying to motivate an individual, a team, a company? What is their current morale and state of mind? When choosing which style of message to deliver, be aware of your audience and the likely effect that style will have.

The situation

Lastly, what is the current situation? Are you in a turnaround where you are about to run out of cash in two weeks? Do you have a major customer delivery date in the next month? Or are you planning a five year strategy? Each situation has a different level of urgency and importance. Being aware of that can help you balance how much time you have to be supportive and/or more direct. People will rally around difficult situations or causes, but not every situation has the same stakes.

While the reality is both the carrot and stick can be effective, I have found over the years the best recipe for me was several parts carrot to every one part stick. The stick is important and often necessary in certain short burst situations or to shake the team out of a funk. However, if the stick is used over and over again it loses its effect and your team will eventually leave or get disenfranchised. That may be in a few weeks, a few months, or a year, but at some point a consistent stick approach will lose its power. Instead, selectively apply the stick for effect, but surround it with many more carrot approaches.

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